Faces of Joanna… avenger with a secret 

18 September 2023 tbs.pm/78024


The quick-change artist above is Joanna Lumley who — at the snap of her fingers — now has power to change her appearance completely to suit any era. The former New Avengers girl has developed the trick for a new science-fiction drama series in which she is teamed with David McCallum. They play “time detectives” in a story that says its producer, has such a compelling atmosphere of mystery, suspense and unseen horror, it could have you believing in ghosts…


Cover of TVTimes

From TVTimes for 7 July 1979

In a lonely old house, miles from any neighbour, a small boy is bent over his homework. Clocks tick in the quiet room and the muffled sounds of mother and father reading to a younger child float downstairs. The boy frowns in pained concentration.

Suddenly, from nowhere, a great rushing roar sweeps the house, drowning every other sound and shaking the old stone walls like a hurricane. Then, as swiftly as it came, the noise dies away, leaving a strange, absolute silence in its wake.

A freak of nature? A sudden gusting of wind that could happen anywhere and at any time to any one of us? It could be…

Except that all the clocks in the house have stopped and an empty rocking chair creaks slowly backward and forward. Upstairs a book lies open on the floor… and the boy’s parents have vanished.

It sounds spine-chilling enough for the most avid excitement-seeker — and that’s only the start of a tense and gripping new drama series, Sapphire and Steel, which, says ATV, will be different from any science-fiction programme shown on television before.

The reason behind the company’s thinking is that the drama relies on the careful build-up of suspense rather than on the gimmicky gadgetry of similar programmes. And it also promises a fascinating partnership between two of Britain’s most popular stars — Joanna Lumley from the New Avengers and David McCallum from Kidnapped.

Joanna Lumley in a leopard-print coat and a fedora

Joanna plays the dazzling, psychic Sapphire of the title and McCallum, the cool and logical Steel.

Producer Shaun O’Riordan is convinced series will be a huge success. “There is an extraordinary feeling of excitement about it,” he said. “And it was a pleasure to work on because everyone involved has been so dedicated.”

I went to see the man responsible for it all, the deviser of the series and its writer, P. J. Hammond.

“I’d always been fascinated by famous mysteries like the Marie Celeste and the Bermuda Triangle and also by stories of time travel,” he said. “It struck me that almost everything’s been done about travelling backwards or forwards in time; it’s usually all silver suits or dinosaurs—and yet people are still interested.

“I watched my children watching an old version of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine on television and they were riveted. So I decided to write a story about time from a different angle. Instead of people going from everyday life into time, I had time breaking into everyday life.”

The programme suggests that some outside force is creating havoc by causing the past to break into the present wherever the barriers between the past and the present are weak. Sapphire and Steel are mysterious “time detectives”, armed with strange powers like telepathy, whose job it is to restore the equilibrium. It’s never explained where they come from, but despite their human looks they’re clearly not from earth.

It all sounds very complicated, but on screen it becomes a tense drama with a growing atmosphere of suspense, ghostly special effects and a sense of unseen horrors.

“I think it will frighten children,” said Hammond, “but then children like to be frightened. I wanted to give them something honest for a change. Too many ghost stories have cop-out endings with the ‘ghost’ turning out to be someone dressed up in a sheet. My ghosts are real and therefore frightening, but I don’t think people are likely to complain. We’re not gratuitously trying to upset anyone and there is no violence.”

He thinks the programme will appeal to children and adults alike, but avoids inevitable comparisons with Dr. Who: “Whenever we felt we were getting close to Dr. Who we tried to do something completely different.”


Sapphire & Steel

Partners in mystery: Joanna Lumley and David McCallum


When he had finished writing the first series of Sapphire and Steel a funny thing happened to P. J. and his wife Jill. They were looking for a quiet house in the country where he could settle down to write the next series (and the book of the series) and they heard of a large farmhouse in an idyllic spot in Oxfordshire.

It sounded perfect, so they went along to look at it — and opened the front door straight into the setting of the first scene of Sapphire and Steel. The resemblance of the farmhouse to the imaginary home in the series is uncanny.

Hall, staircase, panelled doors, small-paned windows and the large country kitchen could have come straight from the set. With the addition of P. J.’s own furniture, including several old clocks, the similarity was distinctly creepy.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” P.J. said. “We knew we had to take the house as soon as we saw it, but we don’t find it spooky—the atmosphere is very friendly.”

Full of people, with the family’s pet lambs Mildred and Earwig gambolling about outside the window, it is. But when you’re alone in the room, deep in country silence, the ticking of the clocks starts to get to you…


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